Make the world your own

El Capitan Reflection

El Capitan Reflection, Valley View, Yosemite
Canon EOS 10D
1/4 second
F22
ISO 100
27 mm

Pretend you’re a musician who wants to make music your career. Let’s say Eric Clapton is your favorite artist, and “Layla” is your favorite song. Do you think your quickest path to fame and fortune would be to record a song that perfectly replicates “Layla”? (Especially given the difficulty you’d have resurrecting Duane Allman.)

So why is it that so many nature photographers with grand aspirations spend so much time trying to duplicate the shots of others, rather than trying to find and refine their own artistic vision? Using Eric Clapton as a model for your music is great—the more you listen to Clapton, the more your guitar playing will be influenced by his craftmanship. But at some point you need to choose between carving your own musical path or languishing in anonymity.

This applies equally in photography. In my photo workshops I encounter many people who have travelled a great distance to duplicate a photo they’ve seen online, in a book, or in a print. I certainly understand the impulse, and I can’t say that my portfolio doesn’t contain its share of these clichés. But, as I frequently urge my workshop students, if you must photograph something exactly as it’s been photographed before, make that version your starting point and not your ultimate goal.

Once you get your “iconic” (that word is a cliché itself) shot, slow down and work the scene. Look for foreground and background possibilities, find unique perspectives. Play with depth and motion. If your original frame was horizontal, try something vertical, and vice versa. Take your camera off the tripod and pan slowly, zooming in and out as you go until something stops you (don’t forget to bring the tripod back before clicking). Still feel uninspired? Try a longer lens—often the truly unique images are tighter shots that isolate elements of the conventional composition.

It’s true that the longer spend time with a scene, the more you’ll find to photograph. Make a mental checklist of the above steps (feel free to add your own) and go through them without rushing: Often the mere mechanical (uninspired) process of seeking something unique gives you deeper insight that leads to a creative capture if you stick with it long enough.

This image of El Capitan reflected in the Merced River resulted from just such an approach. I’d rolled into Yosemite at around 10:00 a.m. on a mid-November morning. The air was crisp and still, scoured clean by an overnight shower. At Valley View I found this perfect reflection, only possible in the quiet-water days of autumn. Working on a tripod, I started my compositions wide and captured many of the beautiful but conventional shots that have been done a million times here. But wanting something different, I removed my camera from my tripod continued probing the scene through my viewfinder. I eventually isolated the reflection, realizing it was so sharp the morning that it was the thing that really set this moment apart. Despite the advancing sunlight that would soon reach the river and wash out the reflection, I didn’t rush.

On my computer at home, it was fun to view my process through the series of captures that morning. I finally zeroed in on this frame that has become one of my most successful images. Did I create the photographic equivalent of “Layla” that morning? Doubtful. But I did come up with an image that pleases me, and something that’s a pretty unique take on this heavily photographed location.

Are you a photographer or a tourist?

Rainbow and Bridalveil Fall

Storm’s End, Yosemite Valley

When the weather gets crazy, do you sprint for cover or reach for your camera? Your answer may be a pretty good predictor of your success as a photographer. It’s an unfortunate fact that the light, color, and drama that make memorable landscape photos all come when most sane people would rather be inside: at sunrise, when the rest of the world is asleep; at sunset, when everyone else is at dinner; and during wild weather, when anyone with sense is on the sofa in front of the fire.

Last spring I guided a photo workshop group through Yosemite. On the final day we circled Yosemite Valley in a steady rain, stopping to photograph many of my favorite cloudy-sky spots. Through it all my hardy group persevered, wet but happy, but by mid-afternoon their energy had started to wane a bit. Rather than risk mutiny, I detoured to Tunnel View to give everyone a breather.

With El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall all on prominent display, it’s no secret why Tunnel View is the most photographed location in Yosemite. After a storm, Yosemite’s dramatic landmarks emerge from swirling clouds as if appearing on earth for the first time. Storms in Yosemite clear from west to east, making Tunnel View the first place to capture this unforgettable experience and my go-to place to wait out Yosemite weather.

The rain fell in sheets as we pulled into the Tunnel View parking area. Throughout the workshop I’d tried to impress on everyone how quickly conditions change in Yosemite, but it’s pretty hard to appreciate exactly how quickly until you actually experience a change yourself. So, despite my prodding to the contrary, when I donned my rain gear and invited the group to join me in the rain, they all opted for the warmth of the cars. And there I stood, five soggy minutes later, accompanied only by my tripod and camera (me beneath an umbrella, my camera beneath a plastic garbage bag), when without warning a ray of sunlight broke through, briefly painting a rainbow above Yosemite Valley, from El Capitan to Bridalveil Fall. After rousing the group I had time for three frames before the rainbow faded into the clouds. Everyone else was still wrestling with their gear.

Did I know a rainbow was going to happen? Of course not. In fact, if I were a betting man, I’d have wagered I wasn’t going to get anything but wet. But no matter how slim the odds were, a special image was infinitely more likely in the rain than in the car.

So. Are you a photographer or a tourist? There’s nothing wrong with the tourist mentality that only takes you outdoors with the masses, well rested and appetite sated in midday warmth. On the other hand, if one spectacular success is compensation enough for the other hundred tired, hungry, cold, and wet failures, you may just be a photographer.

Every picture has a story

Bridalveil Dogwood

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite National Park
Canon EOS 10D
1/15 second
F/22.0
ISO 100
48 mm

Every picture has a story. (And as Rod Stewart reminded us, every picture tells a story as well, but it’s not necessarily the same story and that isn’t really what I want to talk about anyway.) The story of a compelling nature photograph can include every bit of the good stuff that makes for gripping narrative in a book or movie: adventure, peril, suffering, and yes, sometimes even romance, humor, and foolish mishaps.

The story of this image goes back to the beginning of the story of my path as a nature photographer, all the way back to an afternoon when the ten-year-old me joined my father, a serious amateur photographer, on a hike to the top of Sentinel Dome in Yosemite. For those unfamiliar with the most beautiful place on Earth, Yosemite’s Sentinel Dome is a towering, rounded knob of granite that does indeed appear to stand sentinel above the surrounding terrain. At 8,000 feet, its summit provides a 360-degree highlight reel of Yosemite’s most dramatic features: Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and Half Dome, among others, are all on prominent display here. With the exception of a single gnarled jeffrey pine, exquisitely captured by Ansel Adams and many other photographers (and now dead and lying on its side), Sentinel Dome’s summit is also as bald as a bowling ball.

On the day of our hike thunderstorms had been firing all afternoon, stabbing the granite near El Capitan and Yosemite Falls just across the valley. Dad’s goal was to photograph lightning, and what vantage point better than Sentinel Dome with its panoramic view, not to mention a photogenic tree for the foreground. My dad wasn’t a stupid man, but personal experience has since helped me understand how his desire to “get the shot” can temporarily overwhelm good sense. So, when the storm crept closer and rain started to fall on our location, rather than descend to safety, Dad handed me an umbrella and asked me to extend it high above his treasured Leica.

So there I stood, proudly and without question, perched atop an elevated and completely exposed peak, extending heavenward a metal rod. I have no memory of fear or even of being aware of the foolishness of our efforts—I just remember sensing Dad’s intense desire to get his shot, and wishing with all my heart for the lightning bolt that would make it happen.

We didn’t get our lightning that day, and more importantly, the lightning didn’t get us. But later that afternoon, as the whole family enjoyed the view in a light rain just down the road at Glacier Point, the storm broke and delivered without warning a brilliant rainbow that arced magnificently across the face of Half Dome. My father, despite being transformed by family priorities from photographer to tourist, still dangled his Leica from his neck—he simply had to lift the camera, meter the scene, and click to get the shot of his lifetime.

Here’s my dad’s Half Dome Rainbow, captured on a summer afternoon in the mid-sixties.

I’ll never forget the contrast of Dad’s emotions that afternoon, which ranged from frustration and disappointment atop Sentinel Dome, to shear euphoria at Glacier Point. I experienced them as strongly as if they were my own, and while photography dropped from my radar as I spent the remainder of my youth occupied with the typical distractions of adolescence, few childhood memories are more permanent than that one. In hindsight it’s clear that Dad’s emotions were a microcosm of the reasons I became a nature photographer. For every success there are ten disappointments, but every once in a while you’re gifted with a surprise that makes all the frustration worthwhile.

Fast-forward to 2004. A gentle spring rain falls as I wander the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley. I have image in mind. Like that afternoon on Sentinel Dome, I have no guarantee of getting the shot I want: a dogwood bloom with one of Yosemite’s landmarks in the background. I make several stops, and as I search I’m only vaguely aware of the steady but light rain (fortunately, there’s no lightning).

I can’t remember how much my thoughts this wet morning drifted to the afternoon on Sentinel Dome with my dad all those years ago, but I have no doubt that it was prime catalyst in my path from enthusiastic assistant, to serious amateur, and ultimately to full-time professional photographer. I now completely understand that need to get the shot with little concern for the consequences, and how easy it can be to mentally eliminate distractions, discomfort, and physical obstacles (and sometimes good sense).

I got my shot that day, a raindrop-festooned dogwood blossom, large and sharp in the foreground, with a roaring Bridalveil Fall soft in the distance. On my drive home I was cold, wet, and happy. Photography’s funny that way. Thanks, Dad.

A sampling of personal favorites

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